As our plane began its descent towards Durban, my excitement level began to rise, almost in tandem. The view from my window began to get clearer and I began to feel my heartbeat rise in anticipation of the 10-days that lay ahead. It had been a long haul, or may I say, a very long haul as we had been flying for almost 19 hours, with a brief layover in Dubai. But, not only was I wide awake but was also feeling particularly energetic as my body pumped adrenaline with the aircraft approaching the King Shaka International Airport in Durban. The reasons behind the excitement were plenty. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, this had been my first long-haul international flight. It was also the very first time that I was going to step onto African soil and where else could I have begun my exploration of the amazing continent than in South Africa. When we touched down, I was beaming from ear to ear as I had just ticked off an item on my rather long bucket list of things to do before I die.
Passing through the immigration at the airport was fairly rapid and we headed towards our hotel, The Capital Zimbali, a modern luxury hotel overlooking the massive expanse of the southern Indian Ocean. When I stepped into my room, I was simply stunned by the view. For, from my seventh-floor room with a vast bay window, I had a commanding view not just of the entire property, but also of the area where the hotel is located, with its own beach and of course the azure blue waters of the Indian Ocean that seemed so inviting. As we had to rush to dinner, I decided that the warm and welcoming waters of the ocean would have to wait.
After a quick dinner, we headed back to our hotel and quickly went to our rooms as we had a very early morning start. Despite the long journey and the fact that I had not really slept for over 24 hours, I was unable to fall asleep immediately. No, it was not because of the bed, which was extremely comfortable. But it was because my mind had already been set to the first real adventure that awaited us barely a few hours later and the excitement was keeping me awake. I was happy that I was going to be face to face with what I love doing the most.
Soon, the sleep got the better of me. As we had to leave our hotel by 4 am, I got up well in time to be ready and rushed to the lobby and soon enough we were enroute to South Coast for an experience that I had so far had seen only in films or television – come face to face with sharks in their natural habitat. Yes, it was the famous shark cage diving experience that South Africa is well-known for. We changed rapidly into wetsuits, though it is always a struggle to convince your body to fit into the size given to you. On top of this, we put on life-vests and the underwater glasses.
A deep dive
To our collective disappointment, we were told to hand over everything that we had – cameras, GoPros and even mobile phones — as we were set to travel 12 km into the sea. But we understood the reason as soon as we boarded the speedboat, that was essentially a large rubber dinghy with powerful motors attached, and as it began moving for our rendezvous with the much maligned inhabitants of the seas. Within moments, the boat seemed to be flying through the water, skimming the surface and bouncing wildly, forcing all of us to use both our hands just to avoid being thrown overboard. Fortunately, after about 8 km of driving as if we were being chased by the baddies in a James Bond film, the boat slowed down a tad and we could breathe again. A good number amongst us had already become seasick and vomited.
Once we reached the spot, 12 km out into the sea, we could already see a large number of the infamous shark fins moving all around us in their usual, menacing ways. At this point, a large steel contraption that had been attached to our boat during the ride was released into the sea and we were told to get inside one by one. The first person who got in panicked as soon as she had stepped in and had to be pulled out. At this juncture, I volunteered to be brave and go in.
But no sooner than I had gotten in, that I felt a series of shivers go through my entire body as I was at last face to face with the most dangerous marine animal in the world. There were easily a dozen of them going around in circles, just as they did in the numerous wildlife documentaries that I have seen. Seeing me inside, others followed and were soon as mesmerised by the scene as I was.
The shark cage is fairly big and its lower end may have been at least three metres below the surface of the water. But we were clinging to the rods barely half a metre below the surface so that we could keep coming back up frequently for air. We stayed in the cage for about half an hour and all this time, while I was watching the sharks hypnotically, my mind was playing the famous soundtrack from Spielberg’s hit film, Jaws.
“God bless South Africa”. The phrase escaped my mouth, almost involuntarily, as soon as we had clambered on to our boat again. Every single person on the boat nodded in agreement.
Going wild at Oribi Gorge
As our hosts had prepared a packed itinerary, fitting in as many activities as it was humanly possible into our compact schedule, the moment we bid adieu to the sharks, we rushed to the next item, Oribi Gorge, where five big adventures awaited us. While driving to Oribi Gorge, which is one of the most reputed adventure tourism spots in Africa, the landscape changed dramatically in under 90 minutes of drive from a flat beach to hilly and forested terrain.
Oribi Gorge is located in the valley of Mzimkhulwana and Mzimkhulu rivers and offers a variety of adventure experiences, ranging from the world’s highest gorge swing that sends you down 160 m into the emptiness of the gorge to abseiling, sliding across the gorge, walking on a suspension bridge as well as riding quads in the rocky terrain.
Due to paucity of time allocated to Oribi Gorge, we could try out three activities. Having met the sharks up close, we had become daring enough to pick the toughest activity first. It was the most exciting or even challenging activity at the Wild 5 – the Wild Swing, that is said to be the highest swing in the world. One look at the swing and the deep gorge below is enough to convince you that it is indeed the world’s highest gorge swing. It is similar to a bungee jump, but even more exciting or frightening since it involves a huge swing across the gaping gorge below when one is falling at what seemed to be the speed of light. It is not something that everyone can muster the courage to try as we found out pretty soon since some of our group members backed out and absolutely refused to believe the local personnel that it was perfectly safe and they would not only come back in one piece but also have the thrill of their lives.
When it was my turn, I would be lying if I did not admit to having my heart in my mouth while I was being attached to the harness and Wiseman, the instructor, explained to me what to do. Much as I believe myself to be a diehard fan of adventures or even extreme adventures, I could not find the courage to take the plunge when he asked me to. Before going any further I warned Wiseman that if anything happened to me I would come and haunt this place forever. Laughing, he said, “Not under my watch”. Yet, I literally had to be pushed off the edge. A loud scream escaped me the moment I left the cliff, but almost simultaneously I began experiencing a thrill that is indescribable in words. I was in a free fall and could see the treetops at the bottom of the gorge rushing towards me at an incredible speed as I continued to hurtle downwards.
After barely 4 seconds, I stopped falling. These four seconds have clearly been the longest seconds of my life as I really felt that I was going to die. Once the free fall had stopped, I swung back and forth, due to the momentum of the fall. It was only now that I could really appreciate the beauty of the place where I was. Through a waterfall, I spotted a rainbow at the far end, while the gorge below had an incredible variety of shades of green.
I had never been so much at peace as I was down there. The sound and splash of the waterfall were my only companions. Slowly they started to pull me up and now I didn’t want to be. But I was also greedy enough to try the other activities.
Next on the list was the Wild Slide. It essentially involves being strapped into a harness attached to a set of cables that connect both the edges of the gorge, with the far end being slightly lower. As the gravity takes you across, the void below is scary enough for many, but we enjoyed the slide as it was not a patch on the Wild Swing.
After the Slide it was the suspension bridge which seemed rather easy. But as I stepped on to it, I realised that things which may appear easy could turn out to be anything but. As there was a fair amount of breeze, walking turned out to be a big challenge since the bridge was swinging and I was forced to grip the ropes on both the sides tightly to ensure that I did not fall down. Somehow, I did make it to the other end.
All the jumps and the swings had left us famished. So it was very welcome when our hosts said that lunch was the next adventure on the itinerary We stopped by at a quaint and beautiful restaurant for a rather late but very sumptuous lunch. By the time we resumed our long drive, it was already dark. When we reached the hotel, none of us had any energy left and I went right away to my room. I decided to go for a relaxing, long, hot water bath. What followed was bliss and after almost half an hour of soaking my tired body, when I emerged from the bath, I dropped like lead into the welcoming bed and was perhaps asleep even before my head hit the pillows.
St Lucia Boat Cruise
The next morning was far more relaxing and easier on us as we did not have to wake up at an unearthly hour to go chasing adventures. Instead, we checked out from The Capital Zimbali and headed for our next activity, St Lucia boat cruise. Saint Lucia is a small, quaint village located on the estuary of Lake Saint Lucia, about 250 km north of Durban and on the coast.
Recognised as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999, Saint Lucia has since then emerged as a major tourism destination. Though it offers a wide variety of attractions for visitors, the biggest draw of Saint Lucia is its boat cruise on the estuary which is immensely popular for sighting hippos as well as crocodiles that are found in abundance.
Our boat was waiting for us when we reached the jetty. It was a small boat that is very popular for small groups to undertake cruises here.
The cruise was indeed extremely pleasant for various reasons. Of course, we spotted the two big creatures of the waters – a large bunch of crocodiles sunning themselves along the banks, while we saw a family of hippos immersed in the water, occasionally lifting their heads out to stare blankly at us and our boat. What made the cruise even more pleasant was the ideal weather that greeted us at Saint Lucia. It was a very bright and sunny day, with the sky in the deepest shades of azure that I could imagine to be possible. As the boat moved, a gentle breeze fanned us. No sooner had our cruise begun than the boat’s manager opened the bar and handed out bottles of chilled cider. We were all extremely relaxed and cheerful when the cruise ended and we began our drive to the next destination, which was again going to be one of the key highlights of our visit.
After driving from Saint Lucia for almost 100 km, we reached our next destination and an equally exciting one, for this offered a unique wildlife safari experience, since it was a perfect combination of wilderness and luxury.
Travelling through tree tops
The next adventure activity on our rich itinerary was also a novelty for me. We were visiting Karkloof Nature Reserve, about 150 km north-west of Durban. The Karkloof is a flat-topped range that serves as a barrier between the coast and Drakensberg. The area is mainly a mist-belt forest and is one of the richest in terms of biodiversity in South Africa. Recognised as an area of significant value as it is home to numerous endemic and near-endemic species of flora and fauna.
It was in this setting that we had our next adventure – the Karkloof Canopy Tour that gives visitors a bird’s eye view of this rich forest from 40 m above the ground. As we reached, we were given the mandatory safety briefing and then taking all our kits like pulleys, harnesses and climbing equipment, we reach the site where the canopy tour begins and we begin to fly, literally.
From the launch platform, our body harnesses are attached to thick steel cables that allow us to glide from one platform to another, gaining height at every stage. The platforms offer different views of the surrounding forest, a 20m waterfall, a clear forest stream and of course the valley and the flora and fauna all around us. While we moved from one part to another, our guide explained the ecology of the forest, naming different trees below us.
Hanging up there, my thoughts turned automatically to all that I had experienced since my plane touched down at the King Shaka International Airport, barely five days earlier. In the course of mere five days, I had seen so many new things, met so many nice people, experienced emotions that I did not know existed and seen and felt the bountiful diversity of Nature from close quarters. Up there, I realised that South Africa had transformed me forever.
Tis’ not over yet
Leaving Oribi Gorge, we thought that we had enough of adventure, but our hosts surprised us with yet another activity, one that Durban is most famous for. Tis’ surfing. We just wanted to see the beach and none of us even thought of trying it out seriously as we knew how tough it was to survive the waves, forget ruling them, standing erect on a surfboard and balancing yourself.
So when we reached Sheldon’s 101 Surfing site, initially we did not take it too seriously. Just like shark cage diving, here too we had to hold in our breath to fit in the surfing suits. Then came the most difficult task, that was carrying the board from the room to the beach. Let me tell you it is heavy.
Finally, when we reached the beach, we were given instructions on how to surf. It seemed pretty easy. But the waves swept away every bit of our confidence. As soon as we entered the water, we were thrown back to the shore. But our instructors were very patient. Sheldon kept on pushing me to stand up. As the saying goes, you fall down seven times, you get up eight. And so did I. Your girl finally could manage to stand even if it was for a fraction of second. I could not believe that after a rudimentary lesson on surfing, lasting under 30 minutes, I could actually stand up on the board. As I was beaming with pride on my success, I saw the happiness on Sheldon’s face as he gave me a high five for our victory.
I was especially glad about this minor conquest of mine as it was the last adventure activity on our list on this visit. Within a matter of few days, we would bid good bye to South Africa.
I am certain that when my plane back to India did wheels up at the Durban Airport a few days later I had become a much better person than when I had stepped into this wonderland. And after meeting the people of South Africa I can easily say they have the best hospitality than anywhere else. They don’t just welcome you in their country but they welcome you in their hearts.